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Deluge of delusion

By Darryl D'Monte

Despite a battering from Superstorm Sandy and subsequent economic losses of $33 billion, the US still prevaricates on the connection between a cataclysmic hurricane and climate change

 Climate change

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

                                                    -- Bob Dylan

These lines are all too familiar. But then, so is the attitude towards climate change in the US, and the answer is unerringly literal and pertinent in this instance. Despite a battering from the superstorm -- also nicknamed, ominously, a ‘Frankenstorm’ -- and subsequent economic losses in New York State (according to Governor Andrew Cuomo) of possibly around $33 billion, there are still sceptics who do not make the connection between a cataclysmic hurricane and climate change.

A good seven years ago, I wrote a column titled ‘Katrina or Cassandra?’ (http://infochangeindia.org/disasters/related-analysis/katrina-or-cassandra.html), where I pointed out that in 2004 weather-related economic losses in the world as a whole crossed $100 billion for the first time. The bill for this single event in New York State alone accounts for nearly a third as much.

The canniest weather-watchers are insurance companies, for whom such superstorms are bad news. They have listed Katrina, which swamped much of New Orleans in 2005, a Category 3 (in ascending order) storm that was responsible for 1,322 deaths. Insured losses were $62 billion, and overall losses $125 billion. Though Irene last year was only a Category 1 hurricane, according to State Farms -- the largest home and automobile insurer in the US -- it caused greater financial damage, at least at the time of writing this. So far, State Farms has received 6,600 Sandy-related claims and they are mounting, with around 6 million homes facing ‘outages’ of electricity for some days in the aftermath. The neighbouring state of New Jersey was the worst hit by the outages, with New York a very close second. However, just under a hundred deaths were reported, which speaks volumes for the US administration’s early-warning and evacuation systems, in sharp contrast to the abysmal ineptitude of the Maharashtra government on July 26, 2005, when 944 mm of rain fell on Mumbai in less than 12 hours.

Regarding Katrina, British environmental journalist Fred Pearce explained to the Mumbai Press Club in 2005 how Katrina graduated from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5 one as it crossed from a cooler Atlantic ocean into the Gulf of Mexico, where New Orleans is situated, the temperature of which had risen to 30 degrees C at that time.

Neither Katrina nor Sandy can be directly attributed to climate change, at least as far as current scientific knowledge informs us. But it is established beyond an iota of a doubt that the wrath of nature was compounded by the folly of humans. The Gulf of Mexico is dotted with countless petroleum refining and related complexes; their effluents heated up the inert water of the bay and the hot air rose to meet the incoming storm, increasing its speed and the havoc it caused.  Similarly, Sandy picked up velocity and journeyed up the Atlantic; the storm suddenly turned west to the coast after encountering an Arctic high-pressure zone, colliding with a cold weather system, all of which caused the torrential downpour.

Some of the most authoritative voices in the US were quick to pin the blame on human-induced weather change. The governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, said clearly: “Anyone who thinks there isn’t a change in weather patterns is denying reality.” And to widespread surprise, as US journalists pointed out, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also linked Hurricane Sandy with global warming, though more guardedly. “Our climate is changing,” he said in a statement remarkable in itself, in the context of a presidential election year in which the word ‘climate’ did not get a mention at any of the contenders’ debates. It is no secret that President Obama, despite protestations to the contrary, put climate issues on the backburner in an election where the economy and jobs were uppermost in voters’ -- and candidates’ -- minds.

Manu Sharma, who is active in the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India listserv, posted this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjNe9LsYpU4): Mitt Romney is at a campaign rally, thanking people for supporting relief work in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Suddenly a protester shouts: “What about climate? What about climate change? That’s what caused this monster storm.” He raises a banner. Three things happen. People start shouting “USA! USA!” and start booing the protester. Romney doesn’t know what to do so he just smiles awkwardly. The protester is taken down by security. Incredible to watch the smiling faces chanting “USA! USA!” as if in a trance, Sharma concludes. Romney, a Mormon, is a fundamentalist in many respects; spare a thought for the plight not just of his country but the entire globe if he had won, as he easily could have.

As the New York Times -- which, like all American media, bends over backwards to present ‘both sides’ of any story -- reported: “Hesitantly, climate scientists offered an answer this week that is likely to satisfy no one, themselves included. They simply do not know for sure if the storm was caused or made worse by human-induced (in UN-speak, ‘anthropomorphic’) global warming. They do know, however, that the resulting storm surge along the Atlantic coast was almost certainly intensified by decades of sea-level rise linked to human emissions of greenhouse gases. And they emphasised that Hurricane Sandy, whatever its causes, should be seen as a foretaste of trouble to come as the seas rise faster, the risks of climate change accumulate, and the political system fails to respond.”

US environmental journalist Lisa Friedman quoted Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the progressive Union of Concerned Scientists: “There seems to be a little bit of an opening here.” He pointed to Superstorm Sandy, New York Mayor Bloomberg’s eleventh-hour presidential endorsement of Obama based on climate change, and Obama’s own victory speech, in which he envisioned an America “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet”. However, Obama’s own record has been far from exemplary because he is so embattled by a Congress dominated by Republicans that he has backed away from joining the global effort to combat climate change. Some UN environmentalists, in fact, cite his record on this score as not being very different from that of George Bush.

The US media also has a great deal to answer for, as the opinion-maker. If the most respected newspaper, the New York Times, prevaricates, as the quote above proves, one can only imagine the rest, particularly TV, from which most Americans derive the news, so far as the mass media is concerned. Frederick W Mayer from Duke University has exhaustively analysed the US media and its “competing narratives” on climate change from 2001-10. Two years ago, less than 40% of Republicans believed that the earth was warming, whereas twice as many Democrats did. He characterises certain features in the coverage of climate change. The first is to treat it as a one-off tragedy, as nearly all the American media did regarding Sandy. Next, as already pointed out, it resorts to what he terms a “he said, she said” approach, which does not help to form public opinion as a “leader” should.

The third, he terms “Don’t Kill the Goose”, and points out: “A closely related tale concedes that climate change is happening (although it may or may not be caused by humans) but sees it as much less of a threat than the actions urged by environmentalists to combat it. This story is a variant of the anti-regulatory story that lies at the heart of contemporary American conservatism. The plot moves downward: once upon a time, American free enterprise made us strong and prosperous, but now regulation is shackling our economy. The villains in this tale are big government (and liberals), the victims are American producers and consumers, and the heroes those who fight against regulation. The point is clear: the clamour over climate change is just an excuse to regulate.”

The next, a staple particularly of Fox News, which is the Murdoch-owned most outspoken sceptic on this issue, is to dub the entire debate a hoax. He writes: “Perhaps the most important finding with regard to Fox’s coverage has to do with the changing mix of narrative lines over the decade. Fox’s coverage of climate change had been more negative than that of ABC’s from the beginning… In 2007, Fox’s coverage took a dramatically negative turn, as the ‘hoax’ narrative came to dominate its coverage. In 2007, Fox ran more than five times as many hoax stories than the year before, and the proportion of hoax narratives to climate tragedy narratives tripled.”

Before one gets carried away by the peccadilloes of the US media, we need to point to prestigious naysayers in our own midst. No less than Swaminathan A Aiyar, consulting editor of The Economic Times, startled his readers with a lead edit page article on November 7 titled ‘Buy Coastal Property!’, with the strap line advising everybody that adapting to climate change was “less costly than spending trillions on politically-tough emission targets”. He observed that no one in the US and elsewhere in the world seemed to be worried about sea level rise, considering that they were making a beeline to buy homes along the coast or river banks. This could include Mumbai, where the National Centre for Performing Arts residential tower at the southernmost tip of Marine Drive exchanged hands for Rs 1 lakh a square foot a few years ago.

Aiyar believes that no country, least of all the US, which has now ceded ground to China as the world’s biggest polluter, is prepared to take on legally binding emission targets, India included. “Intelligent investors know there is no political will for the necessary carbon cuts,” he says. “Then why do they keep piling into coastal locations? An important part of the answer must be that their belief is quite shallow, more political correctness than deep conviction. Yes, they do see some danger. But they do not see it as dangerous enough to change their lifestyle and investment style.”

This is simply too simplistic and takes the view that the best is the enemy of the good. The history of people awakening to the dangers of some environmental threat is replete with examples. Take tobacco, which took 50 years, and, before that, the addition of lead in petrol around 1925; subsequently, the use of asbestos in housing and most recently, GM food crops. Now it is well established that the precautionary principle must apply: better to be safe than sorry. Thank goodness Aiyar’s views are not shared by other commentators in the country, with the exception of some of his ultra-conservative fellow travellers.

So the question remains: Will Superstorm Sandy awaken the US and the rest of the world to the extreme dangers of erratic weather events, regarding which there is a deluge of writing on the wall?

Infochange News & Features, November 2012